The highway was empty.
I guess everyone who wanted to leave already did, Anna mused, staring at the green blurring past the window.
Avery pulled out his sixth stick of beef jerky. “Want some before I take a bite?”
The last five times he had only offered after he had taken a bite.
“Uh, no thanks,” Luke replied.
He and Anna were squashed uncomfortably in the back, one on either side of Jackson’s car seat. For the past half-hour, he’d been pressing the buttons on his plastic book nonstop.
Let’s go on an adventure! the voice sing-songed, followed by a musical blip. Anna groaned, putting her hands over her ears.
“When are we going to stop?” Priscilla asked. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“We can’t stop, Mom. Not until we’re out of Florida.”
“That’s in four hours, Anna.”
“Then you’ll have to wait four hours.”
“We need to get gas, though,” Avery said. “We’re almost empty.”
Anna glanced out the window. “Okay, fine. Stop, but make it quick.”
They pulled off the exit and into the first gas station. Like the highway, it was totally desolate. Avery stepped out of the car and unhooked the gas nozzle while Priscilla dashed towards the convenience store.
“We might as well stretch our legs,” Luke said, unbuckling Jackson.
“We’ve been driving less than an hour.”
“Still, might as well.”
The hot sun beat down on their backs. The wind is still. Jackson rested his chin on Luke’s shoulder, staring at the pickup truck. “Car,” he said. “Car!”
Neither Anna nor Luke could bring themselves to praise him for it.
The store was empty. The only evidence that someone ever was there was an open newspaper and a half-melted Slurpee. No radio played over the speakers, and there were no footsteps from the back room. Not even Priscilla’s footsteps could be heard from the grimy, unisex bathroom in the back.
They made their way through the aisles while the fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered overhead. Luke picked up a stick of beef jerky. “Should I get this for your dad?”
Anna laughed. “Absolutely not.”
They walked to the cooler, where rows of soda and off-brand milk still filled the shelves. Shlup – Luke swung the door open and grabbed a diet coke. Anna grabbed a bottle of chocolate milk and a water. They made their way to the counter, ready to be back in the truck.
“Hello?” Luke called out. No response. The condensation rolled off the Slurpee cup, pooling on the counter. The edge of the newspaper stuck to it, turning into gray mush. Luke glanced at the headlines. Palm Sands Still Under Quarantine. Antidote Administered to Surrounding Population. Then an educational article: 5 Signs Someone is Infected. 1. They know your name without you telling them. 2. Their eyes flash red…
“Hello?” Anna called. She glanced behind her. Where’s Mom? Shouldn’t she be out by now?
Luke rung the small, silver bell on the counter a few times. Ding ding ding! Jackson giggled. Then, once again, silence.
“Screw it,” Anna said. “Leave change on the counter. What was it, $1.99 for each?”
Luke reached for his wallet.
One of the back doors smashed open and a tall, haggard man stepped out. White hair ran down his back in a long, frizzed ponytail. His eyes were sunken and wrinkled, and he walked with quick, long strides.
He reached the counter, studying them carefully. His brown eyes flitted from Anna, to Luke, to Jackson.
“Is that all?”
Luke nodded hesitantly.
The man grabbed the drinks and slid them across the scanner.
Blip. Blip. Blip.
“Your total is $6.39.”
Luke handed him a 10-dollar bill.
“Thanks,” he said, plopping the change into Luke’s hand. “Have a good day.”
“You too, Mark.”
A deafening silence filled the room.
The man stared at Luke with wide, brown eyes.
The Slurpee fell to the floor, exploding in a spray of blue.
The man held a loaded pistol, aiming straight at Luke’s head.
“You’re one of them!”
Luke opened his mouth, but no words came out. Myra’s voice echoed in his head, pulsing louder than his heartbeat.
Dormant. Activated. You won’t know when.
“No, he’s not.”
Priscilla was suddenly standing beside them, hands on her hips. “He saw your nametag, idiot.”
“I’m not wearing one,” Mark said, still pointing the gun at Luke.
“You left it in the bathroom. It’s right next to the sink.”
The man hesitated. The gun, just for a second, drooped.
They took the opportunity. They darted out of the store and raced across the parking lot. “Car! Car!” Jackson giggled, as they ran for their lives.
“Avery, get in the car!” Priscilla yelled.
“It’s not done filling yet –”
“Get in the fucking car, Dad!”
They flung the doors open and jumped in. Jackson shrieked with delight as he bounced in Luke’s arms, completely oblivious. Avery thrust the car into drive, and with a screech they peeled out onto the road.
“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?” Avery yelled.
“Luke’s…” Anna faltered. She looked over at Luke, her eyes brimming with tears.
Priscilla glared at Anna, her eyes sharp and hard, almost hawk-like. “You owe us an explanation,” she said. “What the fuck was going on back there?! Because, let me tell you, there was no nametag in the bathroom.”
Luke swallowed, staring at the two of them.
They love me, trust me. They let me marry their daughter and live in their home.
He took a deep breath. “I’m infected.”
The car went silent, but only for a heartbeat.
“What? How?” Avery yelled, nearly swerving off the road.
“That’s not important right now.” Luke could hear the voices again. The hive-mind, or whatever it was. They were whispering and murmuring in the back of his mind. Some were suggesting, others were commanding.
And he realized with horror:
If he could hear them – they could hear him.
They know where we are. They know we’re right outside of Boynton. No, dammit! Don’t think it!
He pulled off one of his socks. He brought it up to his face, and tied it over his eyes as a blindfold.
“Avery – I can’t know where we’re going. Stop driving north and choose a different direction. Don’t tell me what it is, just drive as fast as you can.”
“But...” Avery tried to protest.
“Just trust me!”
Luke felt the car lurch underneath him, to the left. Then it straightened out.
“No, now I know you’re going west. Go zigzag, in circles, or something. Anything to throw me off. I just absolutely cannot know where we are, okay?”
The car lurched again and again. Avery drove in circles until they all felt nauseous. When the car finally straightened out, a wave of nausea rose in Luke’s throat.
“I think I’m going to…”